Suffering In Silence: The Underclass
If we take seriously Gandhi’s admonishment that poverty is the worst form of violence, then what are we to make of the 2010 poverty figures released by the Census Bureau earlier this week? The 2010 Income and Poverty Report serves as a weighty reminder of the depth and breadth of human suffering in the United States. Or does it? Although traditional economists marked the end of the Great Recession (two or more consecutive quarters of declining GDP) on July 1, 2009, the labor market has continued to disintegrate. Since late 2007 the U.S. has lost more than 8 million jobs. In fact, almost 700,000 were lost just this year at a time when unemployment rose from 9.3% to 9.6%. In sum: income dropped; poverty and unemployment rose.
According to the report an additional 2.6 million people dipped below the poverty line last year as the official poverty rate increased from 14.3% to 15.1%. The current rate represents 46.2 million people living in poverty in the United States. (The last time the poverty rate was higher was in 1983 when it reached a staggering 15.2%.) Mississippi had the highest poverty rate last year, at 22.7%, and New Hampshire had the lowest, 6.6%. Poverty rates rose to 9.9% (.5^) among white households, 27.4% (1.6^) among black households, 26.6% (1.3^) among brown households, and dropped from 12.5% to 12.1% among yellow households. (Recall that the original poverty threshold was derived in the mid-1950’s and is based on the measure of the food consumption of low-income families. Surveys from this era revealed that families spent about a third of their income on food and so the poverty threshold was calculated by simply tripling the value of the “economy food plan” for a given family size. Amazingly, with very few alterations, and with adjustments for inflation, this measure remains the official poverty measure to this day. Food consumption represents a much smaller share of family budgets than was the case fifty years ago while housing, transportation, and health care comprise larger shares. Simply modernizing the official thresholds for this change alone would lead to an increase in poverty thresholds and rates.)
Over the last two days nearly every news organization from Democracy Now to the Wall Street Journal, from The Rachel Maddow Show to The O’Reilly Factor has offered a sobering interpretation of the data. Unsurprisingly, each source has thus far neglected to confront perhaps the most devastating discovery in all Census research: a record growth in population share falling below HALF (!!!!!!!) of the poverty line. This is disgraceful. In 2010, 50% of the poverty line (defined also as the subsistence rate) for a two-adult two-child family was $11,057. In 2010, 6.7% of people were living below half of the poverty line, up 0.4 percentage points since 2009—a record high share of the population in deep poverty since the Census Bureau began tracking this statistic in 1975. Not included in the figure but alarming nonetheless is that 9.9% of children were below half the poverty line in 2010, up from 9.3% in 2009.
Despite clear evidence of a burgeoning underclass, or, according to Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, “a class produced by joblessness reinforced by an increasing social isolation in an impoverished neighborhood,” President Obama continues to tour the country galvanizing support for his American Jobs Bill that simply does too little too late. The single largest provision in his proposed piece of legislation is a reduction in payroll taxes paid by American workers and companies. Curiously, such an idea rests on the assumption that those most worthy of help are the modestly employed. (The unemployed, of course, don’t contribute to payroll taxes.) But what for the unemployed? What for the so-called permanent underclass? It seems that human suffering only ascends to the rarefied heights of “official state recognition” when it threatens to expose the untenable foundations on which the ideology of the American Dream rests. But what for those whose suffering is systematically reduced to normality? What for the least of these?